11 April 2004 | Buddy-51
funny and moving little film
Written and directed by Peter Hedges, `Pieces of April' is a droll little comedy with deadly serious overtones. April is the black sheep of the Burns family, the one child of whom her mother has no fond memories. Although from what we see of her, April seems to be a pretty decent young lady, it is obvious that her parents and her brother and sister harbor deep resentments towards her (her earlier involvement with drugs and drug dealers seems to be the primary cause of bitterness). Well, it's Thanksgiving Day and April is attempting to mend some bridges by hosting this year's dinner at her cramped New York City apartment. April is terrified of failure and her family members have little faith that she will be able to pull the event off. Complicating matters even further is the fact that Joy, April's mother, is suffering from terminal cancer.
As a narrative, the film basically runs along two parallel tracks. One involves April and her frantic attempts to get her dinner cooked despite the fact that her gas oven has suddenly stopped working. This forces her to go up and down the hallway of her apartment building throwing herself on the mercy of her colorfully eccentric neighbors, some of whom offer their assistance and some of whom don't. Hedges mines his richest vein of humor in this section, capturing the offbeat nature of both the people and the situation. The other plotline - involving the family's reluctant trek from suburbia into the city - naturally carries with it far more serious overtones, dealing as it does with death, recrimination, family dysfunction and despair. But even here, Hedges is able to inject some moments of wicked black humor into the proceedings.
Oddly enough, of all the characters, April is one of the least fully developed in the film. She remains basically a passive observer and most of what we learn about her comes from comments made by various family members. We have to take it on faith that she is such a loser and a troublemaker because we see very little evidence of it with out own eyes. Certainly the most intriguing character in the story is the ironically named Joy, ironic because, even though her terminally ill status should elicit sympathy from the audience, her often-nasty disposition makes it difficult for us to like her. This is Hedges' boldest touch, this refusal to sugarcoat or sentimentalize a person just because life and the fates have been unkind to her. Also quite fascinating is the character of Beth, April's younger sister. We see how Beth thrives on the positive attention she receives simply by being the `good' daughter of the family, and how she jealously and ever-so-sweetly guards her own position while subtly sabotaging any effort on the part of April to make amends and to find her way back into the fold. It's a fascinating portrayal of sibling rivalry carried to destructive proportions.
`Pieces of April' features wonderful performances by Katie Holmes as April, Oliver Platt as her father, Alison Pill as her sister, and Derek Luke (from `Antwone Fisher') as her boyfriend. Particular praise should go to Lillias White, as the neighbor who supplies April with a stove at her greatest hour of need, and to Patricia Clarkson as Joy, who achieves the Herculean task of making her pain-wracked character both abrasive and sympathetic at the same time. It's an award-worthy performance.